Q&A with Mountain Runner Sarah McCormack
Written By: SportsShoes
Irish international superstar, Sarah McCormack, has taken the mountain running world by storm, winning the Mountain Running World Cup in 2019 and claiming victory in a wealth of prestigious races. This year, the inov-8 sponsored athlete, finished the short season with a real flourish, completing her very own Italian job with a hat-trick of wins at the Italian Long Distance Mountain Running Championship, the Italian VK Championship and setting a new women’s record at the famous Trofeo Vanoni Relay in Morbegno.
We caught up with Sarah to discuss her record-breaking performances, find out who inspires her the most and ask what she has planned for the future.
Hello Sarah! Congratulations on your recent wins in Italy at Trofeo Nasego and the Chiavenna VK, especially as both races were Italian National Championships. How does it feel to be both the unofficial Italian Long-Distance Champion AND the Italian VK champion?!
Pretty surreal to be honest! Last year I came second at the long-distance championships so I think I knew that if I had a really good day I was in with a chance. To win the VK championships was just a huge surprise. The race was organised as a time trial (it followed this format long before COVID came on the scene), so they set you off one person every 30 seconds, in reverse order of your anticipated speed. I set off third to last and, although I felt like I was moving well, I had no idea what was going on in the race behind me. During the race, I found myself able to run a lot more of the route than I have in the past and I felt like I was performing well, but I really thought I'd be lucky to make it into the top three. I think the time trial style of the race worked in my favour because it helped me to stay mentally positive throughout, focusing on myself and what I was doing rather than worrying about anyone else. After crossing the finish line, I just had to wait to hear what time the girls behind me had ran. When I heard that I was in with a chance of the win, but that they had to look at the chip time because it was so close, I felt sure that I'd just missed out on gold, but finally they announced (in Italian) that I'd won by 0.3 of a second. I was still really worried that I'd misunderstood the announcement and finished second, so it wasn't until about 20 mins later that I could be sure I'd actually won.
It was a huge honour to win both events, there is a lot of history and culture surrounding mountain running in Italy and as such there was a really strong field of women on the start line in both events. Having competed against a lot of the same runners over the past years (and often finished behind them) I'm definitely very proud to have come out on top on both occasions!
Of course, we have to talk about the prestigious Trofeo Vanoni Relay. Last month, you won the race, smashed the women’s record and completed a hat trick of impressive wins in Italy. Can you tell us a little bit about the significance of breaking this record and what it means to you?
Trofeo Vanoni as a race means a lot to me - I've been competing there since 2014, and it was my first experience of a local Italian mountain race. The race has a long history, both in Italy and also in the UK, since it's twinned with the Snowdon International mountain race and each organisation sends a team to the other's race every year. The race takes place in Morbegno in Valtellina, which is a beautiful and characterful wine-making region - the landscape is an amazing mix of terraced vineyards and forested mountainsides, not far from Lake Como. It's a very short race (just under 5k) and in classic Italian style it has an amazing variety of gradients and types of terrain - cobbles, forest path, road, rocky track, stone-wall jumps and sharp switchbacks, all packed into a 20-minute blast. Last year, I came within 10 seconds of the record, so when the chance came up to race for the Irish team there this year, I really wanted to give it another go. I think it went well because I was able to just focus on beating my 2019 self by 11 seconds, rather than worry about what anyone else was doing. Like any record, I'm sure it'll be broken again at some stage, but it's really cool to feel like a small part of the race's prestigious history now.
Photo credit: SIXT
How does it feel to be back travelling and racing again after such a lengthy break due to COVID-19? How has racing changed since last year?
At first, I was reluctant to travel but eventually I just couldn't watch the year slipping away anymore - training had gone well and I wanted to put it to some use. I'd done a few low-key club time trials and 6-person races here in the UK that helped me get in shape in the way that only running against other people can. Without these sharpener races I am sure that my Italian season wouldn't have gone nearly so well. The big change this year at the international races was the social element - it's a really close-knit and fun community and there is usually a lot of celebrating the night after a big race, which wasn't possible this year. It's a very small thing in the grand scheme of a pandemic, but I really missed the social element. At the moment you have all the stress of the race and then everyone heads off home before you get a chance to relax and catch up.
How have you managed to stay so fit with the absence of races (for most of the year)? Have you done anything differently which has helped improve your form?
We had some cool club events on - time trials on set routes and the like. A runner from a nearby club (Jonathan Tombs from Black Combe Fell Runners) organised a brilliant series of fell races when we were allowed to exercise in a group of 6 people, where 3 people from one club raced 3 people from another. I did a couple of these as well which really helped me to sharpen up. I also have a couple amazing training buddies here in the Lakes - I do a lot of my hard training sessions with Scout Adkin and Louise Mercer. We all have different strengths as runners which makes for some really good hard workouts.
Robbie Simpson (GB international), has been coaching me this year which has taken a lot of the subjectivity out of my training - it's all very well working on training plans for other people (Sarah runs Missing Link Coaching with her partner Paul), but it's hard to be completely objective when it's your own training. In February, March and April I had an ankle injury, so when May came around and I could train again I found I just couldn't stay inside. I knew I was doing a lot but I just couldn't sit still - it was sunny, we were in lockdown, and I felt I had lost time to make up for. Once I admitted to myself that I was pushing things a bit too much and was probably on the road to injury, I asked Robbie if he'd help and it's been great. I enjoy the feeling of waking up and knowing what my training is for the day, and having someone to bounce ideas off. For me, now I feel like I'm part of a team, which is a real positive in what can otherwise be a very individual sport. I aim to give to the runners I coach a similar sense of support.
How have your plans for the season changed?
There are so many different types of mountain races to choose from and I was still making up my mind about what to target when COVID hit. I was hoping to do enough races to score in both the Mountain Running World Cup and the Salomon Golden Trail Series. I also wanted to run in some English Fell Running Championship races - the race line-up looked really cool for this year so I hope it's able to take place in 2021.
Photo credit: Mountain Running FLICKR
Running has taken you to some amazing places over the last few years. What is your favourite race of all-time and why?
I think I have to go with the Fletta Trail race weekend in Malonno, Italy. This weekend comprises a super-steep VK on the Saturday and then a half-marathon distance mountain race on the Sunday. The whole community gets involved, not just the runners. Everyone turns out to cheer you on and all the mountain villages that the route passes through have a contest for best support. Most of the villages pick a fancy dress theme and stand outside screaming at you, ringing cowbells, dousing you with water, playing trumpets etc. I've made some really lovely friends through this race and hope I can go back to it next year.
We’re currently featuring a series on Inspirational Trails. Where are your favourite places in the world to run?
The list is long, but the top contenders would definitely have to include Madeira, Argentina, Macedonia, Ireland, Austria and Spain, however, Italy is the one place I can’t seem to stay away from. An area that has really stolen my heart is Valchiavenna, surrounded on three sides by Switzerland, it's got so much going on in terms of trails, snowy summits and mountain villages, as well as the beautiful historic town of Chiavenna in the valley bottom with quiet cobbled piazzas, cosy cafes and amazing gelaterias for a post-run (or mid-run) refuel. I can't wait to get back there again.
As a committed and passionate athlete, what is it about off-road running that you love and which athletes inspire you the most?
I love the feeling of running a new route in the mountains, where you just lose track of time, forget everything else going on in your life and just run!
My top three inspirations would be Angela Mudge, Vic Wilkinson and Andrea Mayr (in no particular order!). They are hugely impressive athletes to me, all of them super-classy and very kicky-assy.
Do you have any top tips for someone wanting to get into mountain running?
Enjoy the feeling of being on the steep part of the learning curve! Outside of mountain running I'm pretty abysmal at most other sports, so when trying something new I try to embrace the fact that you can make progress so quickly when you're a beginner. In particular, just rack up time on your feet in the mountains, whilst being aware of not making too many big changes to your training all at once. Hiking can be as good, if not better training than running, because it's got such a low injury risk, and you are still developing your strength, endurance and coordination on rough ground. When I started mountain running I probably only went out into the hills twice per week maximum, because if I did more than that I'd get some tendon issue or joint pain. Gradually, it's possible to build up to doing a lot more training time in the mountains, and hiking is a great way to do that. It's not just for beginners either, it's also used by a lot of really top runners like Sarah Tunstall and Jasmin Paris as a very specific form of cross-training.
Photo credit: www.trofeovanoni.it
Do you have any top kit recommendations?
I love the inov-8 X TALON ULTRA 260 - I wear them every day. I find them as good for hard-packed Italian trails as soggy Cumbrian fells, and everything in between. They're comfy enough to use for all types of running, but grippy enough that they give you a huge confidence boost on the tough descents.
Despite the problems and disruptions caused by COVID-19, you’ve had a really busy year. So, what’s next for Sarah McCormack?
I really don't know yet, I've finally come to the end of all my races for this year and I'm feeling like I'm at a loose end at the moment. I know my legs need a break now but if I could I'd jump right in the van and head back to Europe. I'm feeling optimistic that there will be a few more fell races in 2021 than there have been this year, so for now I'll try and rest up so I can be fresh for when another race opportunity comes along.
You can follow Sarah and all her mountain running adventures here.